The purpose of Claiming Williams Day is to spark difficult conversations about issues of identity and entitlement within the College community. It offers a jolt out of the usual routine to force us all to step back and look at the way our actions – or inactions – affect those around us. I firmly believe that a day like this has an important place at the College. However, Claiming Williams has been a contentious event since its establishment. At its inception, many people believed that the event’s only purpose was to respond to several racist incidents three years ago. Search “Claiming Williams” on WSO, and the results contain just three threads.Reading through those threads, I was struck by how virulently people objected to the structure and even the existence of the event. Many students feel that the overall tone of the day is accusatory and object to the way the event is scheduled just after the first day of class, thereby “forcing” it on them.
One major objection, the timing of Claiming Williams Day, seems reasonable. To someone who does not believe the day is a necessity, it could seem as if switching the first day of class and Claiming Williams Day does no harm and extends dead week by a day. Some people on this campus certainly resent being forced to return to campus for class only to have a “day off” the next day, and indeed the placement of the day can seem somewhat tactless on the part of the administration. While I believe that the day must provide a shock to the regular routine of the community, placing Claiming Williams Day so close to dead week invites students to regard it as just a mistimed day of vacation. This arrangement encourages students to relapse into the lethargy of dead week rather than taking the time to reassess their situations. Moving Claiming Williams Day deeper into the term would offer a more meaningful wake-up call to the community by truly breaking the daily routine of the College. Mountain Day is such a wonderful day not because one day is a particularly long vacation but because it breaks the weekly cycle of classes, work and relaxation. Although moving Claiming Williams Day further into the semester might encourage more students to spend the day working rather than attending events, the benefits of breaking the routine and not alienating portions of the community outweigh this concern.
The claim that the tone of the event is sometimes construed as accusatory is somewhat more difficult to approach. Are people who feel that Claiming Williams puts them on the defensive racists, sexists or homophobes? Certainly the events of the day are not particularly aggressive or confrontational. The community’s problems are never blamed on any particular group or student. So why do some people feel that Claiming Williams continually targets them? The issue is especially thorny because it is wrapped in the shroud of political correctness, so it is difficult to even approach solutions to this problem. However, I suspect that there is a way to make Claiming Williams Day more palatable to these students without altering the events of the day itself – change the name to Sharing Williams Day.
The change is small and apparently superficial, but it is a fundamental shift in the way the day is framed. The first line of Claiming Williams’ mission statement reads, “Claiming Williams invites the community to acknowledge and understand the uncomfortable reality that not all students, staff and faculty can equally ‘claim’ Williams.” Clearly the intention of the day is to allow all members to have a fair share in the community and remove obstacles to their active participation in it. Ideally everybody would feel comfortable living in this community, with a welcoming climate receptive to everybody’s differences and similarities. But to claim something implies a type of exclusive ownership: If I claim a seat at a movie, that seat can no longer be yours. Claiming emphasizes the individual action of possession, drawing attention to the clear line between who is enfranchised and who is not. While this sort of harsh rhetoric certainly has its place in pushing for equal rights, it is also inherently divisive. We cannot create a community based on individual possession because this framework prevents us from coming together to form an open community. What we need is a day to emphasize coming together and remind us of our similarities, not our differences. The College is imperfect because not everybody is able to equally share in the Williams experience. The College is divided because some people think they have a greater claim to the school than others. We need to acknowledge that the College belongs to no one person or one group but to the community as a whole, and learn how to come together and share this place.
Xander Kerman ’14 is from New Haven, Conn. He lives in Fayerweather.